When Spaniards began descending on Bakersfield in the 1800s, searching for gold and herding sheep, they brought with them an appetite for roast lamb, oxtail stew and baguette upon baguette of French bread. While the shepherds have (mostly) come and gone, the tradition of Basque cuisine remains in Bakersfield. Few places stick as closely to the script as the Noriega Hotel, a former boarding house founded by Basque expats in 1893, and still a bustling place near the town’s train tracks.
Known locally as Noriega’s, the restaurant attracts visitors at the bar, where patrons listen to music, chat and sip Picon Punch (a Basque cocktail). Then it’s time to grab a seat at the long communal tables, where each meal begins with starters both common—salad and rolls—and not—cottage cheese cut with mayonnaise and pickled tongue. After that come platters of Basque classics including paella, lamb stew, bacalao (a salted cod dish that hails from the Basque region) and fried chicken with freshly chopped garlic. Loaves of French bread and hunks of blue cheese fill the spaces in between. Meals are all-you-can-eat affairs with all-you-can-drink red table wine—or coffee, tea or milk for non-drinkers.
In 2011, Noriega’s caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation, which named the institution—run by the same family since 1931—an American classic. 'We were very surprised by that,' says Linda Elizalde-McCoy, who owns Noriega’s with her sister, Rochelle Ladd. 'They determined that yeah, it was something different.' The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly have also endorsed the restaurant, which keeps the 120-person dining room buzzing. (Ms McCoy notes that summers bring more tourists, while locals fill the place year round.) Though Noriega’s harks back to a time before gluten-free regimens became a thing, most dietary restrictions can be accommodated: vegetarians who eat eggs are offered omelettes, and those who can’t consume flour can opt for baked chicken instead of fried.
Lunch is about $17 a person, dinner $22; children are charged a dollar per year of age, up to 8 for lunch and 12 for dinner. Booking is recommended.
The rapidly growing city of Bakersfield, in California’s southern Central Valley, is full of pleasant surprises. Once known only for oil and agriculture, Bakersfield—or Bako, as the locals affectionately call it—has become a Central Valley hub for arts and culture while still retaining the richness of the region’s past. The country’s largest concentration of Basque restaurants, including the 125-year-old Noriega Hotel, upholds the area’s Basque heritage with boarding-house-style meals of oxtail soup and a myriad side dishes (immigrants from the Spanish and French Pyrenees herded sheep and planted orchards here in the late 1800s).
Fast-forward to Bakersfield’s citified attractions, including the gallery-filled Arts District, home to the 1930 Fox Theater, where performances range from pop music to film noir, and Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the place to hear the Bakersfield Sound, a gritty style of country western music. Find out more about hardscrabble musical pioneers like Owens and Merle Haggard with a visit to the Kern County Museum, a collection of 56 historic buildings spread out among grassy lawns. You’ll also get a lesson in California’s oil industry: Kern County’s wells pump 70 percent of the state’s “black gold.” Afterward, shop for vintage finds at Bakersfield’s Antique Row, then pop over to the swanky Padre Hotel for a cocktail on the rooftop lounge.
There’s plenty of nature to be had around Bakersfield, too. Wildflowers blanket the local grasslands and nearby Tehachapi Range in spring. See them in March and April at the 93,000-acre Wind Wolves Preserve, the West Coast’s largest nonprofit nature preserve. At any time of year, these vast grasslands are a haven for wildlife and an inspiring place to take a hike or pedal your mountain bike.